Frontline World

React

India, Hole in the Wall, October 2002

 

 

ARCHIVED CONVERSATION
Read through archived FRONTLINE/World conversations around this story below, including responses from the reporters.

Ben Richey - St. Louis, Missouri
I thoroughly enjoyed the FRONTLINE/World series, and especially the Hole In The Wall segment. As someone who wrote an undergraduate thesis on the Digital Divide, it nearly brought me to tears to see children with no prior technology experience accessing the Internet for the first time and learning it for themselves, from experience. It renews my enthusiasm and belief that access to information can improve people's lives. Thank you again for producing exceptional programming.

Kristi Dolera - Flint, Michigan
How nice to see an UPLIFTING, POSITIVE program! (I smiled a lot throughout this piece...) With all the anxiety and conflict going on in the world right now, it's good to have a respite from that, if only for a few minutes. This piece was a ray of sunshine in my otherwise stressed-out day. Just another reason to love PBS! Thank you so much.

Saleem Ceepee - Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
No doubt this is a very laudable project - bringing technology to the streets, especially to hapless children.

What prevents the spread of such ambitious projects is the cost which is a major problem. Who will foot the bill for spreading technology to the poor in a country where a majority is starving, living without power, struggling to get potable water, have a decent roof over his head, etc. Definitely we can enlighten more and more children if we have the means to spread the 'technology magic' to the nooks and corners of village India.
-Saleem

Reporter Rory O'Connor Responds:
Thanks for your email regarding The Hole in the Wall project. It is true that spreading information technology costs money. Sugata Mitra, head of the project, has estimated that it would take two billion dollars to install 100,000 such public computers all over India. But he also estimates that the result would be 100 million computer-literate young Indians within five years. And it would cost three times as much --six billion dollars -- to train teachers to teach those children how to become computer literate.

So, while costly, The Hole in the Wall approach is three times cheaper than any comparable method of creating computer literacy. And the eventual savings for India as a whole would probably far exceed the initial investment. As Dr. Mitra notes in my feature-length documentary film on this topic, "There are two types of poverty -- material poverty and information poverty. The world has spent much of much of the past fifty years trying to solve the problem of material poverty, with little success. But perhaps if we address the problem of information poverty first, poor people might be bale to solve the problem of material poverty on their own."


The following conversation took place in response to the first broadcast and launch of "Hole in the Wall" in October 2002.

Katie Hinnenkamp - Santa Cruz, California
A fascinating story. While I agree that an experiment like this is not in itself a long-term solution, it is certainly a wonderfully unexpected, if slight, narrowing of the digital divide.

San Jose, California
Congratulations to Dr Mitra. This is one of the most wonderful uses of technology, resources and will power that I have seen. The importance of this experiment lies more in the fact that it has been successful in a third world country, where food is more important than a place to sleep. This experiment is not only delving into the diminishing the so called "Digital Divide", it captures the young impressionable mind. Exposure to internet or what even it looks like is good enough to blossom into thirst to learn more. And even if a few kids from these surrounding get going on this front, they might help a whole family cross the poverty line.

Sebastopol, California
Just seeing the joy of discovery on the faces of the children shows Sugata Mitra's experiment to be a success in my eyes. How can such excitement about learning be anything but positive for these young cybernauts? Information is power, and access to information can only help to expand the dreams and aspirations of these wonderful young explorers.

Tucson, Arizona
I loved this story, and the kids. Exploring is the best, most fun way to learn. I've been a programmer for 35 years and still get a kick out of learning new things on the computer by guesswork and trial & error instead of boring directions.

Robert Taylor, MD - Boston, Massachusetts
Sugata Mitra is a hero. He dares to try a simple yet innovative trial and he changes lives. What more can a person do that is important? Continue your good work Sugata! You are terrific.

Toms River, New Jersey
The story is inspiring. I don't believe that the internet will solve every problem in society but it will give many people of the world information with which to better themselves. Information is the key to leveling society and helping those poor countries find better ways to help themselves.

Katell Zappa - Boston, Massachusetts
Thank you for bringing us this story. I think it shows the kind of change that one person can bring to his community, and there is no better place to make change than with children. Since we usually take our access to technology for granted, it is good to be reminded that browsing the Internet is a new discovery for these kids.

Germantown, Maryland
First off, the program, idea and the children in particular, were very sweet. Children are curious, smart and will figure out novel ways to solve problems. I really enjoyed the show. On the other hand, I agree with an earlier viewer that this is not a realistic solution to the digital divide. NIIT's (Mitra's employer) prime motive (especially during the heady 1990s) is to charge people an arm and a leg to train them primarily so they can immigrate to the US. Middle and low-income students can never enroll in their classes. If Mitra were really interested in the promotion of computer literacy for less fortunate children, he would donate computers to schools and rather than experiment with holes in walls, he would set up proper computer centers where children would learn and practice in a more formal environment.

Reporter Rory O'Connor responds:
I assure you that Sugata Mitra is sincerely interested in the promotion of computer literacy for less fortunate children -- hence his pioneering work with The Hole in the Wall. And far from benefiting financially, the firm that employs him, NIIT, has already supported his work financially over the past couple of years, both by paying his salary to work on the project part of the time, and by paying for the installation of the first three experimental computers. Subsequent project support, all stimulated by NIIT's initial efforts and finances, has come from the Government of New Delhi, the ICICI Bank, and the World Bank. By the end of next year, there will be more than 100 free public computers in locations all over India for children to use freely.

Regarding your concept of 'proper computer centers' where children would learn in a 'more formal environment': such an approach would be anathema to Mitra, since it flies in the face of his entire theory of 'minimally invasive education. He estimates that if he could make 100,000 public computers freely available, 100 million Indian children could teach themselves the rudiments of computer literacy within five years.

Terry Pratt - Seattle, Washington
Its true this approach may not save the world or even these children, but I saw some 3rd world, poverty stricken kids smile because of it. A smile is always a start.

Calgary, Alberta, Canada
This was absolutely delightful. Bridging the gap will have untold effects. It will undoubtedly assist in global realization, but the question lies in how the world reacts.

Raleigh, North Carolina
Mitra does not claim to have the answer to poverty, but his initiative is generous, audacious and does widen infinitely the horizons of these Indian children. He has to be praised for that. Actually, the Hole in the Wall is a smart start : we should have more initiators of info delivery to the poor people. Used at its best this can help them to help themselves. A great and touching broadcast. Thank you for showing the bright side of the humanity. Mitra exemplifies it in an outstanding manner.

Robert Onzo - Daphne, Alabamba
I just watched this story tonight. I feel extremely moved and encourage by the experiment. I have always believed in the inherent intelligence and desire for enlightenment in mankind and the experiment shows that the environment is so much more influential on a persons journey through life than his gene's. Why? Because we all have the capabilities, but only select individuals have the environmental stimulus to fully realize their capabilities. Discovering an hourglass on a screen is a form of proof towards environmental enlightenment. The same as solving a quantum theory is to a physics major. It is all relative to the experiences of the individual. Those children discovered an hour glass today, which may lead to an increased curiosity tomorrow and thus, the capability of a profound discovery some time in there future and who really wins in that scenario? We all do. I certainly did tonight and I thank you for the story and I thank that Dr./business leader for his insight...

Longwood, Florida
This story made my day. Those children have bright, intelligent, eyes. I get the impression they are not the poorest of the poor. I was surprised at how many of these children appeared to have a command of written English (All of the displayed web sites appeared to be in English).

Spicewood, Texas
Powerful! Mitra has shown children they can learn, whatever their station in life. He has given them entry to a treasure trove of resources; as they use those resources, they will not only want more learning, they'll learn ways to get it. Perhaps even more important, he has helped them feel connected to the rest of the world.

Columbus, Ohio
I also found this story inspiring. As a former teacher, I was most struck by the kids absolute fascination with the sheer enjoyment of learning and discovery. The look in their eyes! Their excitement and wonder over world news, lesson plans, and geography is something teachers strive and often fail to simulate in the traditional classroom. A part of me agrees that "kids can't teach themselves"--the right structure could challenge these kids in ways perhaps recreational surfing alone will not. In addition, I can't help but ask: who regulates what sites these kids visit? Who is there to explain extremist propaganda sites, and warn kids away from pornography?

I believe there is power in the lesson of learning for learning's sake, which is exactly what I see these kids doing. I have some concerns, but the beauty of this experiment is that (I hope) it represents only the beginning of the battle to narrow the digital gulf that divides.

Reporter Rory O'Connor responds:
Thank you for your warm and enthusiastic response. Many of the points that you make are explored in more depth in the feature-length 82 minute documentary film The Hole in the Wall, available online at www.globalvision.org.

Regarding your specific questions about regulation and pornography, here is what Sugata Mitra says in the film on these points: "When we started the experiment, there was a lot of fear about what the children should or should not access. I personally believe that there is no such thing. I mean, the Internet is actually open for anybody to access. There is this fear of pedophilia and pornography - that kind of thing. However, we're on safe ground here because the target group we're looking at is eight to thirteen year olds, and this problem is not and has not surfaced at all in any of the places that we are working in. However, if the kiosks are not pointing toward a public space, they tend to be used by adults for these purposes. So once again I think that we have a misconception there. The adult fear that children will go to such web sites is probably founded on the fact that if they had the chance to, the adults, they would do it for that....We are not putting any filters at all on Internet access for two reasons. One is that filters don't work - they can always find a way around them. The other is that a filter actually acts as an incentive to a child to break it and to see what it is that you are trying to filter out. However, if you leave it open, they quickly get really bored with a subject which is, in effect, intrinsically rather boring."

Darshan Kulkarni - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Having lived in India for most of my life and having realized the lack of opportunities for these children, and how this lack of opportunities results in these apathy on the part of the children if not harnessed, I am very happy to realize that someone has taken this opportunity to seize the attention of these children. I wonder if there is anyway to join the effort and potentially help.

Jason Hamilton - Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
I just watched the show and I liked that fact that I can see how other people on this planet are using the internet as a tool of learning and bringing us closer. Closing the digital divide starts small of course but I think the idea of the hole in the wall is great starting tool. I hope it will enlighten the children of India to use technology to better their society.

James Veillon - New Orleans, Louisiana
Powerful!

"The Hole In The Wall" internet connected computer gives these children access to revolutionary learning experiences that they could not get otherwise.

Besides being exposed to fundamental computer information technology that is essential to their economic futures, they also enjoy a liberal exploration into a new world of unbound self guided knowledge, ideas, and inspiration.

Dayton, Ohio
What a wonderful thing! Children who otherwise might not ever lay their hands on a computer throughout their entire lives, being given the opportunity to use one. There is no way this can be a bad thing. The joy in their faces as they learned to make it work and see things they may have never seen was a sight to behold. The DR. is a modern day St. Nick. No, it may not close the so-called 'digital divide' but it might inspire the people who use it to a yearning for more education for themselves. And frankly I see no harm in that. There are places here in the USA that would benefit from a few 'Hole in the Wall' computers.

Bowling Green, Ohio
I have lived in countries in Europe and Africa and Asia that had many areas with abject poverty. Dr. Mitra's idea of approaching the "digital divide" through the children of poverty touched my heart deaply. It is sometimes the smallest of ideas that make changes in this large world. I'm glad there are children in large and small towns in India who are finding benefit from this approach. Can't we do the same in America? Yes, America, there are places in towns and rural areas that could use this same assistance!

Scott Lyles - Grand Junction, Colorado
This is more along the lines of a question, but I'm sure others who saw the program are thinking, How can we connect with these people, and possibly assist them? The need in India is so great...Who do we get in touch with?

Reporter Rory O'Connor responds:
There are many good Internet links posted on the Frontline World site, which should prove useful to your quest. Please go to www.pbs.org/frontlineworld and click on "The Hole in the Wall" to begin exploring.

If you want to speak with Sugata Mitra. the originator of the project, he can be reached through NIIT in India, SugataM@niit.com .

Boston, Massachusetts
This is a novel idea and inspiring story. I don't know whether it will translate to solving the digital divide, but I find Mitra's dedication to be contagious. It is nice to see some innovation. And I hope that these "slum kids" will be better off for having found the hole in the wall. I also hope their skills will migrate upward, perhaps even to their parents.

San Francisco, California
I think this effort is misguided. Kids cannot teach themselves. I realize they may pick up some literacy skills, but does this really translate to economic opportunity? Secondly, the notion of technology as the come-one-come-all answer to economic development and abject poverty is very 1999. I would like to see a story that addresses the broader, complicated factors that affect a country like India, leaving it with such a bifurcated population of lower and upper class. A company putting computers in a wall isn't the answer.

New York, New York Responds:
Perhaps this experiment is short sighted in that there is not a substantive groundwork set for a flourishing middle class, in India, however I would be loath to label this experiment misguided. The underlying problems bifurcating this society will take generations to supplant, generations where in a working class will grow to take democratic action and establish their economic sway in the market place. Technology, being the prime mover in the global economy today, is the obvious route this society will take from a more-or-less old world economy to a new world economy. If this experiment elucidates any point it is that there is no cognitive separation between the classes or the sexes -that knowledge like the power to earn money is a matter of access... Access and exposure is exactly what this experiment is creating. I cannot applaud this effort more enthusiastically. It's simplicity, and thereby its power to subvert Feudal and fundamentalist dogmas is elegant genius.

Further more, one should not be too hasty as to underestimate the innate cognitive abilities of humans, especially children. The child's ability, to extrapolate cause and effect from any set of stimuli is the very seat of all human knowledge. Before there was the teacher (in human guise) there was the lesson -there was in fact the experiment.